It was early in the day but late in the game when Moeen Ali got to the middle. England were 116 for seven, and 365 runs behind. They had lost four wickets already that morning, and they made for painful viewing. Tied up in knots by India’s spinners, their batsmen seemed to have adopted a new team policy of trying to play positively. Dan Lawrence was yorked charging down the pitch, Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes both caught playing the sweep. It all came off a little unconvincing. Like they were practising mantras they had just read in a self-help book: “I am a strong and confident player of spin, I am a strong and confident player of spin.”
Even Ben Stokes struggled. He spent 52 minutes trying to find a way into the game, was beaten over and over again, was almost caught once off a top edge, then again down the leg side, and nearly out lbw too. It was like watching Clark Kent scrabble around the bedroom trying to find his boots and cape. Caught at slip, Stokes walked off shaking his head back and forth in bewilderment.
And here was Moeen. Sixth ball, he took two steps down the pitch and, swish, lofted Kuldeep Yadav for six over long-on. Three balls later, he leant back deep into his crease, and cut him square for four. Next over, he swatted Axar Patel for three consecutive sixes down the ground, each of them higher, and more handsome, than the last. Then, he went after Ravichandran Ashwin, cuffed him for four over mid-off, crashed him for another six with a slog-sweep over midwicket. There was one more four, punched through extra-cover, before he was stumped, charging down the pitch to try to hit another six. And he did it all while he was chewing gum, too.
He made it all look ever so easy. And maybe it was.
It’s true Moeen had nothing to lose, but maybe it’s true, too, that he felt he had something to prove. Because watching him make short work of the Indian spinners when it didn’t matter, you had to wonder why he hadn’t been given the chance to try to do it while it still did. Moeen has made two Test centuries in India (the rest of the team have made three between them), one of them on this very same ground. England have spent a lot of time in the last few days trying to find a way to score runs in these conditions, it never seemed to occur to them to try asking the guy playing at No 8. He was a star batsman cast in a walk-on part.
And the shame of it is, that this may have been their last chance. Moeen is going home, which means this may be the last we will see of him in Test cricket for a while. England’s management had already agreed that he would be rotated, and after five months inside the team bubble, and a 20-day spell of isolation in his hotel room while he was recovering from Covid-19, he must need it. After the match, though, the team’s decision seemed to be recast as his. “Moeen has chosen to go home,” said Joe Root, “He obviously feels he wants to be home with his family and we have to respect that.”
From this distance, Moeen’s situation isn’t any different from Jos Buttler’s, or Jonny Bairstow’s, (like them, he will play in the IPL if he gets picked up by a franchise, no doubt his cameo here will also serve as a reminder to them before the player auction this Thursday). But by, initially at least, describing this as being Moeen’s decision, Root has left him open to accusations that he lacks commitment. It would be a clumsy way to treat any player, but it’s especially so for one who has spoken before about how he has been made to feel like he is “always one of the first guys to get the blame”, and who England’s own spin bowling coach, Jeetan Patel, only just said needed to “feel a bit of love from the game”. And Root apologised to Moeen for it in private later on.
The difference is, of course, that Buttler and Bairstow went home after England had won, Moeen is doing it after they have lost, when tempers are high, and everybody is asking hard questions. You can understand Root’s frustration too, even while wishing he had done a better job of disguising it. Moeen has taken more wickets against India than any other English spinner since Derek Underwood and he took more wickets, and scored more runs, than anyone else did for England in this match. Now England will probably have to turn back to Dom Bess, who they have only just rested. It is all a bit of a mess.
However it plays out, you hope that we haven’t seen the last of Moeen in Test cricket. Not least because even after all these years, and runs, and wickets, there is a lingering feeling that England have never quite figured out how to get the best out of him, that, of all the roles he’s played for them (from frontline spinner through to opening bat and almost everything in between), he has never been allowed to settle for long in the right one. It sometimes feels like the way England’s management have handled him has made a man who makes the game seem so easy and so straightforward feel like it’s a very complicated business indeed.